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From George Washington to Benjamin Harrison, 25 October 1779

To Benjamin Harrison

West-point Octr 25th 1779

My dear Sir,

Letters of a private nature & for the mere purposes of friendly intercourse are, with me, the production of too much haste to allow time (generally speaking) to take, or make fair copies of them1—and my memory (unfortunately for me) is of too defective a frame to furnish the periods at which they were written—But I am much mistaken if I have not, since I came to the prest Incampmt, wrote you a full acct of the situation of things in this quarter—Your last letter to me was in May.2

The Pensylvania Gazettes, which I presume you regularly receive, will have conveyed official accts to the public of all occurrances of ay importance—A repetition would be unnecessary & tedeous.3 But it may not be amiss to observe, that excepting the plundering expedition to Virginia,4 and the burning one in Connecticut5 the enemy have wasted another Campaign (—till this stage of it at least) in their ship-bound Islands—and strongholds, without doing a single thing advancive of the end in view, unless by delays & placing their whole dependance in the depreciation of our money, & the wretched management of our finances, they expect to accomplish it.

In the meanwhile they have suffered—I do not know what other term to give it—a third part of the Continental Troops wch altogether was inferior to theirs, to be employed in the total destruction of all the Country inhabited by the hostile tribes of the Six Nations—their good & faithful Allies!6 while the other two thirds without calling upon the Militia for the aid of a single man excepting upon the Inhabitants in the vicinity of this Post (& that for a few days only) at the time Genl Clinton moved up the River in the spring & before we could reach it—restrained their foraging parties, confined them within very circumscribed bounds at the same time bestowing an immensity of labour on this Post—more important to us, considered in all its consequences—than any other in America.7

There is something so truely unaccountable in all this that I do not know how to reconcile it with their own views, or to any principle of common sense—but the fact is nevertheless true—The latter end of May as I have hinted already Genl Clinton moved up to Kings-ferry in force, & possessed himself of Stony & Verplanks points—alarmed at this (for I conceived these works, & the command of the river in conseque. was really the object, and the other only an advance to it) I hastened to its succour; but the return of the enemy towards the last of June, after having fortified & garrisoned the points, convinced me that that was not their design—or that they had relinquished it till their reinforcemts shd have arriv’d—since which these Posts have changed Masters frequently & after employing the enemy a whole campaign, costing them near a thousand men in Prisoners by desertion, & otherways—& infinite labour is at length in Statu-quo that is—simply—a continental Ferry again.8

The reinforcements from G: Britain under Convoy of Adml Arbuthnot & Sir Andw Hammond from the best Acct we have receivd amounted to about 4000 Men—mostly new recruits, & sickly—many having died on their passage & since their arrival.9

We are now, in appearance, launching into a wide and boundless field—puzzled with mazes and o’erspread with difficulties—a glorious object is in view, & God send we may attain it—sometime ago it was much within the reach of probability; but the Season—and the incessant labour of the enemy to secure the City & harbour of New York are much opposed to us, & serve to lessen my hopes in proportion as time rolls on. It is now 30 days since Congress gave me official otice of Count D’Estaings intended co-operation, & no authentic acct of him is since come to hand10—The probability therefore is, that we shall have hot work in a cold season.

I have called upon Massachusetts bay—Connecticut—New York—New Jersey—& Pensa for Militia—and every thing being in a proper train for a capitol enterprize, to the Gods & our best endeavours the event is committed.11

Verplanks & Stony point as I have before observed are already evacuated & from every acct & appear[anc]e the like will happen at Rhode Isld—things being in a train for it.12 Their whole force then will be concentred at New York, & in regular Troops only, will amount to at least 18,000 besides Seamen from near 1000 Sail of Vessels of different kinds—Refugees—& the Militia of those Islands wch are actually in their power, & which they have had employed on their works of defence ever since the first rumour of the french fleets being in these Seas.

I have no doubt but that the Assembly of Virginia, at its last session, had cogent reasons for opening the Land Office; but so far as it respects the Army, the measure is to be lamented; for I believe, from what I have heard, that it will be a means of breaking up the Virginia line.

I have never read the Act with any degree of attention—and at this time, have but an imperfect recollection of the purport of it—But in general conversation I learn from the Officers, that by some clause in this or an antecedant Act those who have already taken pains—& have been at expence to secure Lands in that Country—will receive little benefit from either the one or the other unless some requisites before Commissioners are complied with—& this they add is not to be done (if I understand them properly) otherwise than by personal attendance. While this operates powerfully upon the minds of all those who have already taken measures to secure an Interest in that new world a desire prevails universally amongst the whole of them to become adventurers before the Cream is skimmed.13

I am informed that the New York Assembly which is now Sitting, mean to make an offer of Land to the Officers and Soldiers of other States, equally with their own—who may incline to take the continental bounty in it14—the policy of this measure may not be unworthy of consideration by the Assembly of Virginia. If it is conceived, that this great Country will long continue to be part of the present government of that commonwealth, no measure that can be adopted will—in my opinion—give it a more vigorous growth than the opening of this door & add more to its population, which ever has been considered the riches of a Country.

To any enquiring friends you will please to make a tender of my compliments15 & do me the justice to believe that in truth and sincerity I am Dr Sir Yr Most Obedt & Affecte Servt

Go: Washington

ADfS, DLC:GW; Varick transcript, DLC:GW.

1GW’s remarks provide a rare and important glimpse into how he wrote personal letters (see also GW to the Board of War, 19 Nov., n.5).

2In GW’s last known letter to Harrison, dated 5–7 May, he acknowledges a letter from Harrison dated 8 Feb., which has not been found. No letter from Harrison to GW written in May 1779 has been found.

3Harrison served at this time as speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates.

4For the British raid on Virginia in May, see William Maxwell to GW, 3 May, and n.2 to that document.

5GW is referring to British raids on Connecticut coastal towns in early July (see GW to Jonathan Trumbull, Sr., 7 July, and the source note to that document; see also Norwalk, Conn., Officials and Stephen St. John to GW, 9 July; Trumbull to GW, 10 July; Samuel Holden Parsons to GW, 11, 14, and 31 July; and GW to Trumbull, 12 July).

6For Maj. Gen. John Sullivan’s expedition through northeastern Pennsylvania and western New York during the later summer and early fall, see GW to Sullivan, 6 March, and Sullivan to GW, 30 Aug. and 28 Sept.; see also John Jay to GW, 29 July, and notes 2 and 3 to that document, and GW to Jay, 15 August.

7After stalling a British drive up the Hudson River toward West Point in late May and early June, GW implemented concerted efforts to strengthen the fortifications at that post (see General Orders, 1 June, n.1; the first letter from Arthur St. Clair to GW, 3 June; Alexander McDougall to GW, 4 June; and GW to Jay of 6 June, to George Clinton of 9 June, and to McDougall of 19 June, and n.2 to that document).

8Light infantry under Brig. Gen. Anthony Wayne captured the British garrison at Stony Point, N.Y., very early on 16 July after a surprise night attack (see GW to Wayne, 1 July, and n.2 to that document; see also Wayne to GW, 17 July, and GW to Jay, 21 July). Deeming the post indefensible given his resources, GW ordered its evacuation, which was completed on 19 July, and the British immediately reoccupied the position (see Richard Butler to GW, that date). For the British evacuation of Verplanck Point, N.Y., and Stony Point, the termini of King’s Ferry, on 21 Oct., see GW to Horatio Gates, 22 Oct., and n.7 to that document.

9For the British reinforcements that arrived with Vice Adm. Marriot Arbuthnot and Capt. Andrew Snape Hamond, see GW to Jay, 11 Aug., n.5; to Lafayette, 30 Sept.; to Samuel Huntington, 9 Oct., and n.4 to that document; and to Duportail and Alexander Hamilton, 10 Oct., and n.1 to that document.

10For the notice from Congress, see Jay to GW, 26 September.

11In this and the previous paragraph, GW is alluding to his intention to attack the British in and around New York City after rendezvousing with a French fleet under Vice Admiral d’Estaing. For an overview of his preparations and ideas, which never were fully executed because of d’Estaing’s decision not to sail north after being defeated at Savannah, see Planning for an Allied Attack on New York, c.3–7 Oct., editorial note.

12For the British evacuation of Rhode Island on this date, see GW to Duportail and Hamilton, 30 Oct., and notes 1 and 2 to that document.

13The Virginia General Assembly passed legislation in May 1779 to settle titles for “unpatented lands under the present and former government” and to open a land office for “granting waste and unappropriated lands” (Va. Statutes description begins William Waller Hening, ed. The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia, from the First Session of the Legislature, in the Year 1619. 13 vols. 1819–23. Reprint. Charlottesville, Va., 1969. description ends [Hening], 10:35–65; see also William Crawford to GW, 10 Aug.). The resignation efforts of Lt. Col. Charles Simms supported GW’s view that the land initiative would disturb the Virginia line (see Jay to GW, 8 Aug., and GW to Jay, 19 Aug.).

Congress debated the issue of the Virginia land office on Oct. 30 and passed a resolution: “Whereas the appropriation of vacant lands by the several states during the continuance of the war, will, in the opinion of Congress, be attended with great mischiefs; therefore,

Resolved, That it be earnestly recommended to the State of Virginia, to reconsider their late act of assembly for opening their land office; and that it be recommended to the said State, and all other states similarly circumstanced, to forbear settling or issuing warrants for unappropriated lands, or granting the same during the continuance of the present war” (JCC, description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. 34 vols. Washington, D.C., 1904–37. description ends 15:1226–30).

14GW apparently is referring to a bill introduced in the New York Senate on 14 Oct. with the title “An Act for granting Bounty-Lands to certain Officers and Privates of the Continental Army; and for encouraging the Settlement of the waste and uncultivated Lands of this State,” which was read a second time on 15 Oct. “and committed to a Committee of the Whole” (N.Y. Senate Proc., 24 Aug.–25 Oct. 1779 description begins Votes and Proceedings of the Senate of the State of New-York; At their Third Session, Held at Kingston, In Ulster County. Commencing, August 24, 1779. Fishkill, N.Y., 1779. description ends , 42, 45). The measure progressed no further during this legislative session.

15The beginning of Harrison’s letter to GW dated 6–10 May 1780 at Richmond suggests that his reply and additional communications have been lost: “I have not had the pleasure of a line from you since your favor in Novr last, which leads me to conclude that my several letters from Wmsburg in that month and the suceeding one never reach’d you, tho’ they were deliver’d to the postmaster by my own servant” (DLC:GW).

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